Sunday, April 26, 2009

black, Black, African-American, PoC...brownish?

I'm often struck by how authors of color use such a variety of terms in referring to other individuals of color. Some say black (little 'b'), others Black. Some use African-American, some person-of-color (PoC). I refer to "authors of color" because I like to be guided by the community itself, rather than by someone observing the community externally. It seems more appropriate, more empowering, more authentic and respectful. Of course, just like many other communities, there seems to be little if any consensus on terminology. So I was struck today by an incident that occurred on the playground, when a little girl asked to catch Dinkeneh on his way down the slide. She was about seven or eight and very eager for the job, so I consented. She enthusiastically hoisted him up on to her hip afterwards, and they took a second to stare into each others' eyes. Then she glanced at me out of the corner of her eyes, looked back to Dinkeneh, and said with no small amount of puzzlement, "He looks brownish to me." After a brief pause, I responded that yes, I supposed he did look brownish, and she broke into a big smile and asked if she could take him down the slide again.

Did I mention that D and this little girl had the exact same skintone?

At first I attributed the "brownish" term to the normal association of children of that age to skin's actual color. No surprise that she might not use the more political labels (see above) that adults use to describe, er, "brownish" people. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered...why the ish? Why not just plain brown? Is the placement of the ish innocent, like maybe D doesn't have skin as dark as others she knows? They're brown, so he's just brownish? Or is it something else, something heavier, like maybe she was afraid that having brown skin is bad, but brownish skin is more acceptable? Or that I might somehow be offended if she told me my son was brown, but brownish was okay? Or maybe she just thought that a brown baby with a white mama must not qualify as brown, straight up, so the ish is evidence of mama messing with his identity, removing him from a community to which he would otherwise belong.

Definitely food for thought. I would never have believed three little letters could intrigue me so much.

So, what do you think about the ish?


Leah said...

Oh the "ish." How I love thee. I think it's a pretty safe place to be - that is "ish" land. Lateish, loveish, whiteish, brownish. I use this when I don't want to offend and I'm not sure how things will turn out in the end...

Nicolle said...

Before Megan was born, Michelle and I were very curious about whether she would be a brown baby or a peach baby. We didn't think to ask if we'd get a too-smart-for-her-britches baby, but that's what we got. Hee hee hee. :)

kristine said...

I don't think she had any clue about the politics. My six year old biracial son asked me a couple of months ago why they called Obama Black. He had never heard that term used. We live in a town that is very diverse but children it's more common for white children in white households to hear 'black' than for children of color to hear it.

African American's have many words to describe skin color - way more than white people. She may have been saying brownish to distinguish as opposed to yellow - red - or light. It didn't have to mean separate from her either. She might describe herself as brownish too.

I highly doubt she was meaning to take the 'bad' out of brown as it is exceedingly unlikely she would perceive brown as anything other than a color.

Just one of the many mysteries that children will throw you:-))

jayme said...

It's so interesting because, as adults, I think we tend to overthink everything and try to put things into easy categories when, in reality, nothing is really black and white... there are all sorts of brownish shades in between.

E&I have been initiating conversations about skin colours lately. They tend to label people "brown" or "pink" and it's fascinating to see them "sort" people who don't specifically fit into any particular category.

(for the record, I'm not exactly thrilled that they're categorizing people at all, and I often remind them that people come in all shades, but they're very interested in sorting and matching at this stage...)

and, by the way, are you guys planning a trip to the Chicagoland area anytime soon? We'd love to finally meet you! (and if not, there's talk of a girl's weekend in Vegas come fall, so you should definitely consider joining us then!)

Life in the Bend said...

Perhaps she was like many of my students at the beginning of the year. They'd look at my picture of the kids, look at picture of Paul on my desk...whisper quietly to each other for a couple of minutes, and then one of them would be brave enough to ask me about it. I think sometimes they were worried I wasn't aware that my kids are a different color than Paul and I. "Miss? How long have you been married?" I think they were looking for ways to break the news to me gently that my family defies the rules of genetics. :)

*Jess* said...

One day my almost 7 year old daughter was drawing a picture of our family. She made Daddy have brown skin. When I asked her about it, she said, "Because he has brown skin, just like my friend Dee Dee". Her friend Dee Dee at school is African American. My husband? Greek. But to Jaina, its just plain brown.

Jennifer said...

I love that children see shades, not races. My children were quite old (6th grade-ish) before they would describe someone in racial terms; before that was "her skin's a little lighter then mine", "his hair's a little curlier then mine".